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Jeff Moehlis: Indigo Girl Power in SLO

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Indigo Girls Emily Saliers and Amy Ray will perform at the Fremont Theater in San Luis Obispo on June 30. (Publicity photo)

Emily Saliers and Amy Ray have been together as the Indigo Girls for more than three decades. Their careers took off with their 1989 self-titled album with key songs such as "Closer to Fine" and "Kid Fears" reminding us that music can be simultaneously beautiful and thought-provoking. Both Saliers and Ray are amazing songwriters, with some additional song highlights being "Strange Fire," "Secure Yourself," "Galileo," "Least Complicated," "Power of Two" and "Shame on You."

Over the years, their music has evolved — perhaps most notably they started plugging in their guitars more often — but their wonderful lyrics and harmonies have always continued to shine. Their next album — a project with the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra — will be released at the end of June.

The Indigo Girls also are politically active and have long supported environmental, Native American and gay rights causes.

Saliers talked to Noozhawk in advance of the Indigo Girls concert at the Fremont Theater in San Luis Obispo on Saturday, June 30. Tickets for the show are available by clicking here.

                                                                        •        •

Jeff Moehlis: I've been listening to your music since shortly after your self-titled album came out. What are your reflections on that album, nearly 30 years later?

Emily Saliers: Well, it was kind of a crazy time. I mean, we never thought we'd get signed to a major label, and then all of a sudden we choose a producer to work with that produced R.E.M., then we're going out to Los Angeles to make an album. It was all a little bit head-spinning. But we were anchored to our community roots, and the guys from R.E.M. came and played, and Michael [Stipe] sang.

And then "Closer to Fine" came out and did really well. We were kind of like, "What's happening? Where are we?" Because we were a bar band. We still are, really, in our spirit. So it was quite exhilarating, thrilling, a little scary to sort of reach a national audience like that.

JM: How did the song "Closer to Fine" come together?

ES: I wrote that song. ... My family was on vacation together in Vermont. We rented a little cabin from a crony of my dad's, and I was just sitting out on the front porch thinking about my college experience in academia and sort of the insular world of that. And then I started thinking about where we go to get our answers to life's deepest questions, and I just started exploring it. So I just sat there on that porch and wrote that song. It was just one in the small groups of songs really that Amy and I prepared for that first album.

And then the record company decided to release it as the first single. We made a video for it with all our friends from home, like Caroline Aiken and members of the Ellen James Society band, and then the Hothouse Flowers guys who were from Ireland and played on the record. So it was just a really super-cool convergence of the beginning of a simple song all the way to gathering all these people, then having it released as a single.

JM: There aren't many music duos who have stayed together as long as the Indigo Girls have, at least while seemingly getting along with each other for the whole time. Do you have a secret formula for how you and Amy work that has helped you to stay together for all these years?

ES: There's lots of reasons. I mean, at the center of it all, we share the same values, the same deep desire to be involved in our communities and to use music as a tool for healing and change. And our families have known each other since elementary school, so we're grounded in our families. All of the milestones of life, our families have shared. And then we have this value system.

But a large part of the secret is not spending a ton of time together. Amy's got her own projects, I've got my own projects. We have separate lives, separate social lives. We write our songs separately. She writes hers, I write mine, and then we come together and arrange them. And we both want to keep things fresh, so we make new setlists every night, try to learn new instruments, try to grow, stay inspired by listening to all kinds of contemporary music. So there's a lot of things that go into it. But I think the basic crux is shared values and deep respect for what each other brings to the table, and then the time that we spend apart, and trying to keep things fresh.

JM: I understand that the Indigo Girls has an orchestral album coming out soon. Could you tell us a bit about that?

ES: It's coming out June 29. Amy and I have been playing with orchestras in North America now for the past several years. We just got invited to be a part of that by an agency that puts artists together with symphonies. It was a real honor to be asked to do that, and eventually we ended up getting 20-some songs arranged. We take those scores to each symphony and have played all these shows.

So we really wanted to capture that, and we ended up doing a show with the University of Colorado Symphony Orchestra at Boulder. We just loved them. They were grad students and some undergrads, and they just had a real passion about their music and they loved the conductor. So we just asked them, basically, would they be willing to make an album with us, and they did. And now it's done. When Amy and I are just playing our acoustic guitars, I always hear those orchestral arrangements swirling around my head now.

Click here for the full interview with Emily Saliers.

— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.

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